and WINSLOW T. WHEELER
Politicians in the US are papering over serious problems in the country’s armed forces. Equating exposure of flaws with failure to “support the troops,” Congress, the presidential candidates and think-tank pundits repeatedly dub the US armed forces “the best in the world”. Behind this vapid rhetoric, a meltdown – decades in the making – is occurring.
The collapse is occurring in all the armed forces, but it is most obvious in the US Air Force (USAF). There, despite a much needed change in leadership, nothing is being done to reverse the deplorable situation the air force has put itself into. The USAF’s annual budget is now in excess of USD150 billion: well above what it averaged during the Cold War. Despite the plentiful dollars, the USAF’s inventory of tactical aircraft is smaller today than it has ever been since the end of the Second World War. At the same time, the shrunken inventory is older, on average, than it has been ever before. Since George W Bush came to office in 2001, the air force has received a major budget “plus up,” supposedly to address its problems. In January 2001 a projection of its budgets showed USD850 billion for 2001 to 2009.
It actually received USD1,059 billion – not counting the additional billions (more than USD80 billion) it also received to fund its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the “plus up” of more than USD200 billion, the air force actually made its inventory troubles worse: from 2001 to today, tactical aircraft numbers shrank by about 100 aircraft and their average age increased from 15 years to 20, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Not to worry, the air force and its politicians assert, the solution is in hand; it is called the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. It will do all three tactical missions: air-to-ground bombing, air-to-air combat and specialised close air support for ground troops – and there will be tailored variants for the air force, navy and marines. Most importantly, it will be “affordable” and, thus, the US can buy it in such large numbers that it will resolve all those shrinking and ageing problems.
Baloney. When the first official cost and quantity estimate for the F-35 showed up on Capitol Hill in 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) predicted 2,866 units for USD226 billion. That is a not inconsiderable USD79 million for each aircraft. The latest official estimate is for a smaller number of aircraft (2,456) to cost more (USD299 billion). That represents a 54 per cent increase in the per-unit cost to USD122 million, and the deliveries will be two years late.
The Government Accountability Office reported in March that the US can expect the costs to increase some more – perhaps by as much as USD38 billion – with deliveries likely to be delayed again, perhaps by another year. That is just the start of the rest of the bad news.
The price increases and schedule delays cited above are for currently known problems. Unfortunately, the F-35 has barely begun its flight-test programme, which means more problems are likely to be discovered – perhaps even more serious than the serious engine, flight control, electrical and avionics glitches found thus far.
Take the F-22 experience; it was in a similarly early stage of flight testing in 1998. Its programme unit cost was then USD184 million per aircraft but it climbed to a breathtaking USD355 million by 2008. Considering that the F-35 is even more complex (19 million lines of computer code compared to 4 million, and three separate service versions compared to one), the horrifying prospect of the F-35?s unit cost doubling is not outlandish. The last tri-service, tri-mission “fighter” the US built, the F-111, tripled in cost before being cut back to barely half the number originally contemplated.
The DoD currently plans to spend more than USD10 billion to produce fewer than 100 F-35s per year at peak production. USAF leaders would like to increase the production rate and add in a few more F-22s. That plan is irresponsibly unaffordable (which contributed to the recent departure of the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff). The unaffordability will become even more obvious when the unavoidable F-35 cost increases emerge. The inevitable reaction, just as in past programmes, will be a slashing of annual production, the opposite of the increase the air force needs to address its inventory problems.
The DoD fix is simple: test the F-35 less and buy more copies before the testing is completed. Two test aircraft and hundreds of flight-test hours have been eliminated from the programme, and there is now a plan to produce more than 500 copies before the emasculated testing is finished. This approach will not fix the programme but it will help paper over the problems and make the F-35 more cancellation-proof in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
It gets even worse. Even without new problems, the F-35 is a “dog.” If one accepts every performance promise the DoD currently makes for the aircraft, the F-35 will be:
? Overweight and underpowered: at 49,500 lb (22,450kg) air-to-air take-off weight with an engine rated at 42,000 lb of thrust, it will be a significant step backward in thrust-to-weight ratio for a new fighter.
? At that weight and with just 460 sq ft (43 m2) of wing area for the air force and Marine Corps variants, it will have a ?wing-loading? of 108 lb per square foot. Fighters need large wings relative to their weight to enable them to manoeuvre and survive. The F-35 is actually less manoeuvrable than the appallingly vulnerable F-105 “Lead Sled” that got wiped out over North Vietnam in the Indochina War.
? With a payload of only two 2,000 lb bombs in its bomb bay – far less than US Vietnam-era fighters – the F-35 is hardly a first-class bomber either. With more bombs carried under its wings, the F-35 instantly becomes ?non-stealthy? and the DoD does not plan to seriously test it in this configuration for years.
? As a ?close air support? attack aircraft to help US troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is a nonstarter. It is too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over US forces for sustained periods as they manoeuvre on the ground. Specialised for this role, the air force’s existing A-10s are far superior.
However, what, the advocates will protest, of the F-35?s two most prized features: its “stealth” and its advanced avionics? What the USAF will not tell you is that “stealthy” aircraft are quite detectable by radar; it is simply a question of the type of radar and its angle relative to the aircraft. Ask the pilots of the two “stealthy” F-117s that the Serbs successfully attacked with radar missiles in the 1999 Kosovo air war. As for the highly complex electronics to attack targets in the air, the F-35, like the F-22 before it, has mortgaged its success on a hypothetical vision of ultra-long range, radar-based air-to-air combat that has fallen on its face many times in real air war. The F-35’s air-to-ground electronics promise little more than slicker command and control for the use of existing munitions.
The immediate questions for the F-35 are: how much more will it cost and how many additional problems will compromise its already mediocre performance? We will only know when a complete and rigorous test schedule – not currently planned – is finished. The F-35 is a bad deal that shows every sign of turning into a disaster as big as the F-111 fiasco of the 1960s.
In January the US will inaugurate a new president. If he is serious about US defences – and courageous enough to ignore the corporate lobbies and their minions in Congress and the think-tanks – he will ask some very tough questions.
These will start with why an increased budget buys a shrinking, ageing force. After that the new president will have to take steps – unavoidably painful ones – to reverse the course the country is now on.
The man who best deserves to be inaugurated next January will actually start asking those questions now.
Pierre M Sprey, together with John Boyd and Everest Riccioni, conceived and shaped the F-16; Sprey also led the technical side of the US Air Force’s A-10 design concept team
Winslow T. Wheeler spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington and is author of The Wastrels of Defense.